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Media Relations Contact:
Jeff Hampton

February 4, 2004

Guide Dogs go to school on DART and TRE trains

With wagging tails and big bright eyes, two dozen puppies boarded a DART train on a recent Saturday morning to ride to downtown Dallas and then to Fort Worth. While regular DART passengers might have thought it was all just fun and games, it was serious business. The dogs were taking some first steps toward their ultimate goal of guiding people who cannot see.

The puppies - golden retrievers, Labrador retrievers, collies and crossbreeds from four to 18 months old - rode DART to get first-hand experience using public transportation. The outing was part of their early training that will teach them to assist legally blind people using public transit. Guide dogs are specifically trained to help their owners navigate traffic, stairs and sidewalks and avoid obstacles that could cause injuries. The puppies were accompanied by more than 50 "puppy raisers" from Southeastern Guide Dogs, as well as their family members, and DART Paratransit Travel Trainers.

Puppies, "puppy raisers" from Southeastern Guide Dogs and DART Paratransit Travel Trainers wait to board a DART train.
Puppies, "puppy raisers" from Southeastern Guide Dogs and DART Paratransit Travel Trainers wait to board a DART train.
"Many blind people use public transit, and their dogs are allowed access to all public places, including trains and buses, because of the vital service they perform," said Cindy Pitney, a puppy raiser and local spokesperson for Southeastern Guide Dogs.

DART Paratransit works closely with groups that provide services to passengers with disabilities to help them use the DART system. For the past few years, the agency has hosted training events for organizations that train service dogs.

This year's outing began at Arapaho Station in Richardson and continued to Union Station in downtown Dallas, where the puppies and raisers crossed the platform and boarded the Trinity Railway Express (TRE) commuter train to attend the annual Stock Show Parade in downtown Fort Worth.

The trainers used the station platforms and vehicles as classrooms, where the dogs learned to remain calm despite the bustle of passing trains and passengers around them. While riding, the dogs were taught to lie quietly on the floor beneath the seats. DART Rail passengers were pleasantly surprised when they saw a trainload of puppies. Many attempted to get the dogs' attention, but to no avail; the puppies remained focused on their task.

The puppies rode DART trains to get first-hand experience using public transportation.
The puppies rode DART trains to get first-hand experience using public transportation.
The dogs must also learn to get on and off trains quickly, and they got plenty of practice at Union Station as they moved through scores of passengers to transfer from the DART train to the TRE. This experience can scare a young puppy at first; one in particular made several attempts to board the train before finally deciding that it was OK. After so much excitement, many of the puppies slept on the train to Fort Worth.

"Riding the trains is a very important part of getting the dogs used to the people and the sights, sounds and movements of public transportation vehicles," said Pitney. "We're getting them used to what will become their life's work."

After working with the volunteers on basic obedience, commands and socialization, the dogs will go to Palmetto, Fla., for six months of advanced, guide dog-specific training. At age two, they will be placed free of charge with a person who is blind.

The trip was also educational for DART Paratransit travel trainers, who teach persons with various disabilities how to ride DART buses, DART Rail and the TRE. Travel trainers evaluate each participant, perform route checks, develop a travel plan and provide one-on-one training to ensure that the travel plan meets the needs and skills of the participant.

"Travel trainers must familiarize themselves with a variety of disability needs," says Lisa Threatt, Supervisor, Paratransit Programs. "The training with the guide dogs gave travel trainers a first-hand look at the role guide dogs play in the independence of our passengers. The training will help the travel trainers to better meet the needs of customers with service dogs."

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